Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Eileen Brennan (1932-2013)
Eileen Brennan, one of our most treasured character actresses, particularly when it came to roles with a comic spin, lost her battle with bladder cancer Sunday at 80. Her death was announced today. The prolific actress turned in many memorable performances, but probably will be best remembered as Capt. Doreen Lewis in the 1980 comedy Private Benjamin opposite Goldie Hawn and the subsequent television spinoff where Lorna Patterson took over for Hawn. The role of Capt. Lewis earned Brennan her sole Oscar nomination and three consecutive Emmy nominations, one of which she won.
After moving from her native California, Brennan performed some stage work with the Mask and Bauble Society at Georgetown University in Washington before returning west and beginning her film and television career. In 1966, she made her first television appearance in a production of Maxwell Anderson's play The Star Wagon where she starred opposite Orson Bean and whose cast included Dustin Hoffman and Marian Seldes. The next year, she made her film debut in Bud Yorkin's 1967 comedy Divorce, American Style with a cast that included Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Reynolds, Jason Robards and Jean Simmons. She was a regular on the first 14 episodes of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In in 1968 and put in guest appearances on the TV series The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and The Most Deadly Game. With 1971 came the release of her second feature film and a true classic. This showed more of Brennan's abilities on the dramatic side of things as Genevieve the waitress in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. She even earned a BAFTA nomination as best supporting actress, quite a feat given the spectacular assemblage of female performers Bogdanovich gathered for his film. Along with her many episodic TV appearances, around the same time she appeared in the memorable All in the Family installment "The Elevator Story." In 1973, she had roles in two significant films: Scarecrow starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino and that year's Oscar winner for best picture, the delightful caper comedy The Sting opposite Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
Brennan appeared in both of Neil Simon's 1970s film spoofs, usually attached by the hip to Peter Falk, in Murder By Death and The Cheap Detective. She guest-starred in a particularly memorable episode of Taxi, "The Boss's Wife," and earned an Emmy nomination as lead actress in a comedy series (the same year she won supporting actress for Private Benjamin). To get even with her husband, Mr. McKenzie, once a year, Mrs. McKenzie (Brennan) picks an employee of the Sunshine Cab Company to have an affair with, resulting in her husband's anger and the worker's firing. Louie (Danny DeVito) delights in the annual ritual — only this time she picks De Palma. Guest appearances on Newhart, thirtysomething and Will & Grace also brought Brennan Emmy nominations. Back on the big screen, she brought the game piece Mrs. Peacock to life in Clue and reprised Genevieve in the 1990 Last Picture Show sequel Texasville.
RIP Ms. Brennan. When you appeared on screen, I knew that whatever I was watching would be getting a lift.
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Monday, July 22, 2013
Dennis Farina (1944-2013)
Dennis Farina tended to be typecast as a cop or a crook — and having served 18 years on Chicago's police force before turning to acting had a lot to do with that, but like so many who come to performing from other lines of work, you'd hardly notice the difference. By the premature end of his 31-year acting career, just seeing his name brought a smile to my face because I knew that he'd provide some good moments in the movie or TV show I was about to watch, even if the production itself didn't turn out to be that great. He garnered two acting nominations in his film career, both for Get Shorty. The American Comedy Awards nominated him as Funniest Supporting Actor in Motion Picture and he joined the other members of the ensemble up for the 1995 Screen Actors Guild Cast Award, including James Gandolfini.
Farina made his film debut in 1981 in Michael Mann's often overlooked gem Thief. He did many guest shots and small roles in movies until he teamed with Mann again as the original screen incarnation of the FBI's Jack Crawford in Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon, which introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter. That same year, Mann gave Farina the short-lived starring role in the 43-episode run of the period TV series Crime Story as Lt. Mike Torello. Atmospheric, vibrant and wonderfully scored — Crime Story couldn't last back then, but imagine if it had premiered a decade or so later on cable. The year Crime Story ended its run, Farina played memorable comic bad guy Jimmy Serrano in the great buddy movie Midnight Run, which just marked its 25th anniversary. Other comic bad guys would follow such as Ray Barboni in the film adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty and the hit man Henry De Salvo in the underrated Big Trouble, based on the novel by Dave Barry.
On the good guy side of things he played Marshal Sisco, father of Jennifer Lopez's Karen Sisco in Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Leonard's Out of Sight. He turned up briefly as one of the recognizable faces fighting World War II, in this case as Lt. Col. Anderson, in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. He also put in two seasons as Detective Joe Fontana on Law & Order following Jerry Orbach's departure. His other television work includes the short-lived, quirky detective series Buddy Faro created by Mark Frost, which I enjoyed but ended quickly. Farina also put in a nice turn as an annoying fitness center owner in HBO's adaptation of Richard Russo's novel Empire Falls. Finally, in another case of a series that ended prematurely (and unnecessarily) he landed the great role of Gus Demetriou, right-hand man and aging strong arm for horse racing-obsessed prison parolee Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) in HBO's Luck, an ill-conceived partnership between Mann and David Milch whose cancellation got blamed on the unfortunate deaths of three racing horses in the same sort of incidents that happen at real race tracks across the U.S. daily. It's a shame, because the nine episodes of Luck that aired were excellent. HBO should have had the guts to buy either Mann or Milch out and let the series proceed. (My vote would have been to keep Milch).
RIP Mr. Farina. Another gone too soon.
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Wednesday, July 17, 2013
What he really wanted to do was be an actor
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of The Sydney Pollack Blogathon occurring through July 22 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
By Edward Copeland
For 40 years, from 1965 to 2005, Sydney Pollack directed 19 feature films. His last directing effort appeared as an installment of PBS' American Masters series on the architect Frank Gehry. Prior to that, he directed lots of episodic television. As Pollack reached the end of his life (and beyond it) he produced projects more than he directed and toward the end he also resumed the artistic endeavor where he started, acting more and more often. When he ventured into show business, he aimed toward acting. His father hoped that Pollack would pursue a career in dentistry, but after catching the theater bug in high school in South Bend, Ind., he left for New York following graduation and studied with legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner at Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse (The same year he directed the American Masters special on Frank Gehry, he executive produce another episode of the series on Meisner). Eventually, he became an assistant to Meisner and even taught acting to others, though in a 2006 interview with Venice Magazine, Pollack resisted calling the technique he learned and passed on "The Method." "People call a lot of things 'The Method,' but there really isn’t one Method," Pollack said, "but it’s all derived from Stanislavsky. It’s all derived from Stanislavsky, but Stella Adler taught it different than Sandy Meisner and Strasberg taught it differently from both of them, and Harold Clurman taught it differently than the three of them, and Bobby Lewis took it in his own direction, as well. They each took The Moscow Art Theater of Stanislavsky and basic principles, and then developed their own approach. The goal was always the same: to find a way to analyze the construction of truthful behavior within imaginary circumstances."
As he acted a lot in television of the 1950s, Pollack's interest turned to directing. While Pollack directed and produced some great and good films (my favorite being 1982's Tootsie, where he took his first substantial acting role since an episodic television appearance on a 1964 episode of the crime drama Brenner starring Edward Binns and James Broderick), after Tootsie, he acted or did voicework in more films and TV shows than his entire filmography. In many ways, I found Pollack more interesting at times as an actor than as a filmmaker, and that's where his career in the arts began, with his single Broadway role in 1955's The Dark Is Light Enough by Christopher Fry and starring Katharine Cornell, Tyrone Power and featuring Christopher Plummer.
Pollack began directing episodic television in 1961 and had ceased television acting in 1964 with that appearance on Brenner. As he jettisoned acting to concentrate on directing, he made a single movie: the 1962 Korean War drama War Hunt. The film starred John Saxon and Charles Aidman, but in addition to Pollack's supporting role, the movie offered appearances by Gavin MacLeod, Tom Skerritt and uncredited work by another future director, Francis Ford Coppola, as an Army truck driver. The biggest name among the ranks (at least he would be eventually) turned out to be a young Robert Redford. Pollack would direct Redford in seven films: This Property Is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, Out of Africa and Havana. Redford served as one of the producers of A Civil Action which featured Pollack in an acting role.
The headline at the top of this piece isn't quite true. Pollack return to acting in 1982's Tootsie (aside from a brief cameo in 1979's The Electric Horseman) proved to be quite a reluctant one. He already had cast Dabney Coleman to play George Fields, agent to prima donna/unemployed actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) but Hoffman pushed Pollack into taking the role himself, seeing the dynamic they had in their disagreements over the script. Pollack didn't want to leave Coleman in the cold so he cast him in the role of movie's fictional soap opera's director instead. Hoffman's instincts didn't fail him or the film as his scenes with Pollack provide many of the movie's comic highlights. You get that in the scene above, in the scene in the Russian Tea Room where Michael surprises George by showing up as his new alter ego Dorothy Michaels and, in perhaps my favorite scene between the two of them, when Michael shows up at George's home late one night to try to explain the romantic complications, including the fact that the father (Charles Durning) of the woman he loves (Jessica Lange) bought Dorothy an engagement ring. Forgetting for a moment what this all means, Pollack's reaction to news of the proposal comes off as priceless.
Following Tootsie, Pollack returned to the directing-producing track for a decade. During this decade he won his two Oscars for Out of Africa, but looking at the projects in that decade on which he worked solely as a producer or executive producer actually look more interesting than most of the movies he directed in that time. Some examples of his producing output from 1982 to 1991: Songwriter, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Presumed Innocent, White Palace, (surprisingly) King Ralph and Dead Again. With Tootsie, Pollack displayed a grounded, realistic comic side, but when 1992 arrived and he began to act up a storm, his range widened, even if for the most part Pollack got pigeonholed as either a lawyer or a doctor, he played distinct members of each profession. Ten years after Tootsie, he managed roles in three films (and found time to executive produce two movies as well: HBO's A Private Matter and Leaving Normal, which had the misfortune of being too similar to Thelma & Louise and coming out a few months after the other film). The photo at the top of this post shows Pollack in his first 1992 role, Dick Mellon, business lawyer to besieged studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) in Robert Altman's The Player. As Mellon, Pollack plays a no-nonsense Hollywood figure who has seen it all and never changes his vocal tone, no matter how serious the situation becomes, and doles out truisms such as in this exchange with Mill. "Rumors are always true. You know that," Mellon tells Mill. "I'm always the last to hear about them," Griffin sighs. "No, you're always the last one to believe them," Dick corrects his client. Pollack, as in the case of his casting in Tootsie, hadn't been the first choice of the director. Of course, Pollack had helmed Tootsie and opposed casting himself as George Fields. With The Player, Altman tried to cast as many of the character parts with lesser-known faces because his film contained so many star cameos and he wanted to avoid as much audience confusion as possible. Initially, Altman sought writer-director Blake Edwards, who also started his career as an actor, though he hadn't appeared on screen since 1948, for the part of Mellon, but it didn't work out and he went with Pollack, who only had that one role in Tootsie in 30 years. While The Player offers darker, satirical laughs than Tootsie did and Pollack doesn't get the laughs out of Dick Mellon that he did out of George Fields, he garnered more laughs in his most dramatic, deepest film role yet as Jack, the divorcing best friend of Gabe Roth (Woody Allen) in Husbands and Wives. I wasn't as crazy about the film as others, but Pollack delivered one of his greatest acting jobs, ranging from the at-ease midlife divorced man finding renewed vigor with a twentysomething aerobics instructor (Lysette Anthony) and then turning downright nasty on her at a party when she doesn't meet his standards for intellectual heft. He literally drags her from the soiree and tosses her toward his car, accusing her of being an "infant." It's a scary side of Pollack that we'll see more of in other roles. His third on-screen role of 1992 didn't receive a credit, but the cameo in Death Becomes Her provides what could be Pollack's funniest moments as an ER doctor examining Meryl Streep. The clip below leaves out his character's final punch line.
Until his death from cancer in May 2008, seeing Pollack act became a much more common sight than spotting his directing credit. He turned up in legal entanglements again in films such as A Civil Action, Michael Clayton and Changing Lanes. He guided Tom Cruise into the sexual netherworld of the rich and powerful in Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut. He took roles in the last two films he directed, Random Hearts and The Interpreter. Pollack even provided the voice for the studio executive in The Majestic and the French film Avenue Montaigne. His final film role was in the romantic comedy Made of Honor where he played the father of the male maid of honor (Patrick Dempsey). On television, he did more voice work on comedies such as Frasier and King of the Hill. He also played a doctor on an episode of Mad About You and had a recurring role as Will's father on Will & Grace. He even played himself on an episode of Entourage, his last TV or movie appearance. Of all his late appearances though, the one that stands out to me also came in 2007 and put him in the role of another doctor. In the batch of the last nine episodes of The Sopranos, Pollack played jailed oncologist Warren Feldman, incarcerated with the dying Johnny Sac (Vincent Curatola) in the great episode "Stage 5." This scene I believe gives a great example of how talented Pollack truly could be as an actor.
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Sunday, July 14, 2013
Summer of '88: Die Hard
“People get involved here, and that’s the thing. If people are patronized, if a film is geared toward a short attention span, then it’ll have a short shelf life. Films that involve that audience and embrace that ‘once upon a time’ principle have a chance of lasting…We’re storytellers and we forget that at our peril.” — Alan RickmanBy Edward Copeland
That Rickman quote appears on the text commentary on one of the many DVD versions circulating for the movie Die Hard. When Die Hard exploded into theaters in the summer of 1988, I didn't rush to see it. The reviews were mostly mixed to negative, and the action films of that era were low on my priority list (especially since, back then, I had to pay to see movies). When I finally ventured out to see it, it had moved to a dollar theater and a group of my bored friends and I decided to check it out for lack of better options. We arrived late, so it wasn't until seeing the film again on video that I caught the foreshadowing of the airplane passenger advising John McClane (Bruce Willis), as they're arriving in L.A., that the best way to readjust to Earth after a long flight involves removing your shoes and socks and making fists with your toes in carpeting. It takes more than one viewing of Die Hard to truly appreciate how much work and thought went into its construction and composition and to catch all the allusions (not just the obvious ones) to classic films.
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Monday, July 01, 2013
What acting is all about — unemployment
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared Dec. 17, 2007. I'm re-posting it as part of The Sydney Pollack Blogathon occurring through July 22 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
By Edward Copeland
Film directing isn't often compared to completing a jigsaw puzzle, but that analogy seems most apt in describing exactly what Sydney Pollack accomplished with Tootsie, which opened 25 years ago today. What began with a story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart and a screenplay by Gelbart became the center of a fight between the film's star, Dustin Hoffman, and Pollack, and ended up with countless other notable scribes (among them Barry Levinson and Elaine May) taking shots at the script. In the end, the final screen credit went to McGuire and Gelbart for story and Gelbart and Murray Schisgal for screenplay, but Pollack's ability to weave the best parts of all those drafts and spin them into cinematic and comic gold deserved a credit all its own. If that feat of wizardry weren't enough, Pollack also turns in a fine supporting role as well, playing Hoffman's character's agent.
When originally released, while I loved Tootsie, being 13, my 1982 heart still belonged to E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, released months earlier. However, as the years went by, Tootsie grew in my estimation while E.T. became almost too schmaltzy to watch, so much so that I haven't returned to it in nearly 20 years. Perhaps my view would change again now. What makes Tootsie soar, like many other films, comes from the fact that its greatness proves impermeable to even a picky, critical mind such as mine. I mean, how exactly does "Dorothy Michaels" (Hoffman's drag alter ego) get paid when she doesn't exist and wouldn't have a Social Security number? Of course, the finale, involving an accident that forces the soap to redo a show live at the last minute seemed ridiculous to me even upon first viewing, but why question the logic of a scene that uproariously funny and with a payoff so huge? The brilliant ensemble cast, in addition to Pollack's patch job, holds Tootsie together. Hoffman, deservedly, gets a lot of credit for his drag creation, but I don't think he gets the kudos for Michael Dorsey that are due him. It might seem as if Hoffman's reputation for being difficult, makes Michael a cakewalk, but he not only plumbs Dorsey's depths for comedy and pathos, but convincingly depicts his transformation from a horny prima donna to a more sensitive man (At one point, Michael acknowledges that he thinks Dorothy is smarter than he is). The opening sequences, depicting his problems as an actor who hasn't had a job in two years, come stocked full of laughs, such as the scene where his agent George Fields (Pollack) explains the reasons he his client can't get work while Michael insists in his own defense "that nobody does vegetables like me" to justify his firing from a commercial where he played a tomato. Hoffman and Pollack don't carry the film alone. Ironically, the weakest link in the cast, Jessica Lange, was the only person to win an Oscar, a consolation prize for losing lead actress in Frances that year to Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice. Frankly though, Lange wasn't even the best supporting actress in Tootsie, though her character provides the key to the film's serious undercurrent of exploring the way men sometimes treat women in all ranges from employment discrimination to out-and-out misogyny, but the message never interferes with the laughs.
Teri Garr's great turn as Michael's acting colleague and friend Sandy did earn an Oscar nomination, but she lost to Lange, as did my personal choice for 1982, Glenn Close in The World According to Garp. Garr, however, clearly led the field of women in Tootsie (hell, I could make a case for Doris Belack as the soap's producer over Lange). Always clandestinely stuffing food into her purse at parties, having Michael "enrage" her for an audition and her go-for-broke rage explosion when she learns Michael has been deceiving her provide some of the film's most priceless moments. The ensemble contains so many great supporting turns by the men in the film, I'm almost afraid to single anyone out. In addition to Pollack, viewers receive the gifts of George Gaynes as the soap's aging star, wholly dependent on cue cards and prompters, who hits on every new cast member; Dabney Coleman doing the chauvinistic asshole character he practically patented in the early 1980s as the soap's director; the great Charles Durning, who earned an Oscar nomination that year, albeit for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with his single but memorable scene singing and dancing a little "Sidestep," as Lange's widowed father who falls for Hoffman's Dorothy and longs for the days when men and women "were what they were." His proposal scene proves both funny and touching (though the comic gem resulting from this sequence comes later when Michael tells his agent about the offer and Pollack asks him what he said, with genuine happiness that makes him forget about the truth of the situation for a moment. Along with Belack, another fine supporting female in the cast happens to be a young Geena Davis who plays another actress on the soap and shares a dressing room with Dorothy.
The prize for the best of the supporting men though goes to the great Bill Murray, in a role that legend says he improvised completely and I believe it. He plays Jeff, Michael's playwright roommate, and if he truly did come up with all his own dialogue, what a treasure trove he unleashed. (My personal favorite: When he says he wishes he had a theater that was only open when it rained.) Even though Tootsie lags a bit when it takes a detour to Durning's farm, it's forgivable since those scenes give the film part of its heft and allows for even more comic grace notes. How Tootsie lost to the noble but limp Gandhi (including for original screenplay, patch job or no patch job) still baffles me.
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